Do or die for Canada in World Cup qualifying

Chris Black is an associate producer with Sportsnet. He is down in San Pedro Sula covering the Canadian national team and working on Sportsnet’s television broadcast of Tuesday’s World Cup qualifying match between Canada and Honduras. A win or draw would see Canada advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF. A loss would more than likely eliminate them from contention.

Sportsnet reporter Arash Madani and I had a chance to spend a few minutes with a trio of Canadian players just before their team dinner on Monday night.

While Julian de Guzman couldn’t contain his emotions about this match and what it means for him personally, the same can’t be said for Simeon Jackson and Atiba Hutchinson.

And that’s not a bad thing.

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After being around this team since their flight on Sunday, there’s no question that, as a whole, they’re an excited but nervous group. I think they will come out guns blazing against Honduras but they will need someone to slow everything down out there. I believe Jackson and Hutchinson are the keys to that lock.

This is Hutchinson’s tenth year with the Canadian senior team, his ninth playing in Europe, and it seems as if not much fazes him anymore.

“There’s a lot of us that have been through this,” Hutchinson said. “There’s about seven of us that played in the last game in Honduras. So we know it’s going to be very hostile, a full stadium. We all know what to expect.”

This is only the fourth year for Jackson with the national team, but his professional ascent has been meteoric. He nearly gave up on his dream of playing pro soccer in Europe as a teenager, but just a few years later, he’s scoring goals in the Premier League, and stepping onto some legendary pitches. According to him, sticking to what makes you comfortable is what allows for success in big moments.

“You need consistency with your preparation, and your mindset,” Jackson said. “You have this routine and you have to take it to every game. Whether it’s the nice pitch of an Emirates or an Old Trafford or what we have here in Honduras, you just deal with it.”

These two players, as you can tell, both have a sort of “roll with the punches” mindset that comes with being confident in your ability. To be honest, that type of attitude wasn’t helpful in Panama, when Canada’s lethargy following a Dwayne De Rosario injury was evident in a 2-0 loss.

However, Tuesday in Honduras, when de Guzman and others will be bouncing off the walls in anticipation of this opportunity, I think Jackson and Hutchinson’s composure will be absolutely necessary.

On Friday, Hutchinson was unquestionably the most impressive Canadian on the pitch against Cuba. I don’t believe the fact that performance came with De Rosario on the sideline is a coincidence.

The way Hutchinson has been carrying himself over the last week or so just implies a sort of understanding that he knows this is his team right now. He’s not a locker room leader, and he won’t give a rousing speech before the game (that’s captain Kevin McKenna’s job).

But he is a player you can put anywhere on the pitch and get a good performance. This season for PSV, he has been thrust into the role of right back, a position he had never played before.

“For me, it’s not the first time I’ve played a different position,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve played behind the striker in Denmark, played on both the left and right sides. I can play quite a few different positions, and it’s nice to have that confidence from your coaches.”

Our last question to all three of the players on Monday night was the same: How do you get of Honduras with the result you’re looking for? How do you make it happen? Given the laid-back nature of these guys, Jackson’s answer came as no surprise:

“We just can’t see the hype around it. We have to focus on the football, work our socks off for 90 minutes, and make sure we all do our job. If we do that, then all we can do after is hope that at the end of it you’re celebrating and popping the champagne. That’s what makes it so exciting, and that’s why everyone watches these big games.”

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